A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
By Kent Jones
From the Politique des Auteurs to the Auteur Theory to plain old auteurism, how clear a picture of actual movies are we receiving?
Just about 10 years ago, Manny Farber and I were taking one last walk through a retrospective show of his paintings. He stopped to scrutinize a large board called Ingenious Zeus—vegetables, branches, and open art books splayed across a field of deep blue in an unsettled composition suggesting the eye of a hurricane. “I try to get myself out of it as much as possible so that the object takes on a kind of religious awe,” he remarked. I remember thinking that Farber could just as well have been thumbing through a collection of his writings, and reflecting on the force field that binds the work of art to the one driven to describe it. Or, as Andrew Sarris explained it, the one compelled to enter into its enchanted aura: “What it really is, is first you see something, and you like it, and then it’s a mystery, and you go into the mystery.” To strive for a strictly objective account, as André Bazin warned, is to turn down a blind alley: the artwork cordoned off from the probing sensual intelligence of its entranced audience is as uninteresting as an output of zeroes and ones. To pursue a purely impressionistic direction is to let the work slip away by other means: the reader is left with nothing but a blurred, smudged and roughly approximate copy, a Xerox of a tintype of an etching after a painting. Approaching the artwork with humility, as Farber and Sarris suggested (as opposed to arrogance or unctuous subservience), being precise about one’s place in relation to it (as opposed to drifting from rapt respondent to rival creator to impartial observer to public advocate, and then back again), and understanding oneself as a transmitter rather than a final arbiter or an entertainer, is to move toward fulfilling the task of criticism as defined by Bazin: “To prolong as much as possible in the intelligence and sensibility of those who read it the original shock of the work of art.” It seems to me that this is only possible if one preserves and builds upon the memory of the very first shock, recalled by Whitman: “There was a child went forth every day/And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became…”
Over the years, I’ve returned often to the writings of these critics, and Farber is the one who gives people the most trouble. In one sense, he is generally admired and acknowledged. Negative Space is canonical, there is now a Library of America collection of his film criticism, and he is constantly cited in essays and blogs, most recently in a new collection by James Naremore and a series of posts by David Bordwell. But many find Farber’s prose to be forbiddingly dense with bygone slang, lousy puns, layer upon layer of metaphor, and abrupt turns and reversals, and I think they’re even more put off by his reflexive contrarianism. Farber’s impulse is to reduce everyone to lifesize proportions with such casual deflations as “Ozu’s long career . . . never outgrows the Hal Roach idea of a movie image being naïve and making you feel good.” That the action of going against the grain is Farber’s roundabout path to coming ever closer to the film and illuminating all of its properties, intended and unintended, is lost on readers with a fixation on value judgments. Farber’s idiosyncratic prose is as spiritually and intellectually sound as Bazin’s, but when you skim his writing the flashes of impudence can be easily mistaken for flippancy. Thus the obit-ready Farber, the man who took down the “sacred cows” of cinema; and the single-minded responses to the LOA collection that boil down to half a tweet: “Why didn’t Manny have any love for Orson Welles?”
I think that Farber’s passionate involvement in the actual practice of criticism precluded any genuine investment in partisanship or polemics, and that’s doubly true of Bazin. Paradoxically, this means that the cinema’s two greatest critics are outliers in what we now call film culture, a by-product of the Politique des Auteurs, streamlined for American use into the Auteur Theory, and finally trodden down and flattened over the decades into plain old auteurism. Their names are constantly mentioned and their most famous pieces are frequently cited and invoked, but rarely in terms of their relevance to contemporary affairs, least of all the lucid objections they raised to the auteurist idea at its inception.
The point is not to claim that film criticism took a wrong turn in the Fifties and Sixties. The auteurist idea at its most basic (that movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences) is now the default setting in most considerations of moviemaking, and for that we should all be thankful. We’d be nowhere without auteurism, which boasts a proud history: the lovers of cinema didn’t just argue for its inclusion among the fine arts, but actually stood up, waved its flag, and proclaimed its glory without shame. In that sense, it stands as a truly remarkable occurrence in the history of art. The consciousness of cinema has indeed been raised on a general level, and people are now far less comfortable dismissing it than they once were. That may sound paltry to those of us who won’t rest until Douglas Sirk replaces Lincoln on the five-dollar bill, but in terms of art historical time it’s astonishing.
Bazin understood very clearly that the force of history had no time for subtleties or distinctions, that it was on the side of his young friends and protégés at Cahiers du cinéma, and that the politique held and defended “an essential critical truth that the cinema needs more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere.” In a sense, his objections were addressed to a future in which artistic creation would be just a little less vulnerable than it was in the mid-Fifties. I think that this has come to pass: it may now be more difficult to make artistic gestures on a grand scale in the cinema than it was even a decade ago, but the ones that are made are met with far less condescension or outright hostility than they once were, thanks in no small way to auteurism. But did Bazin imagine that the extremism of its originators, who were not practicing a critical method but making a collective affirmation, would become habitual? His tone was ineffably respectful, but his rhetoric was as sharp as tempered steel. “There can be no definitive criticism of genius or talent which does not first take into consideration the social determinism, the historical combination of circumstances, and the technical background which to a large extent determine it,” he reminded his readers and fellow critics. This was a prelude to a very simple question with an obvious answer. Did Hitchcock, Rossellini, and Nick Ray make their films with the freedom that Matisse and Singier enjoyed when they painted canvases? Of course not, because cinema was “both popular and industrial.” The question became even more complicated in regard to American cinema. Bazin posited an “American cinematic genius” that had shown “American society just as it wanted to see itself; but not at all passively, as a simple act of satisfaction and escape, but dynamically, i.e., by participating in the means at its disposal in the building of this society. What is so admirable in the American cinema is that it cannot help being spontaneous.” (Bazin’s brilliant formulation now has a poignant ring: America no longer seems interested in seeing itself dynamically, and our industrial cinema has become anything but spontaneous.)
It seems to me that these points are more or less irrefutable, and that far from bursting the balloon they suggest the possibility of an amended and potentially richer variation on auteurism. Why didn’t it happen? Such a possibility was without interest to the younger critics, already on their way to leaving criticism behind even as they were writing it, and criticism has remained equally irrelevant to their followers. “What is the point of saying that the meeting between Richard Burton and Ruth Roman while Curt Jurgens watches is edited with fantastic brio?” wrote Godard so memorably. “Maybe this was a scene during which we had closed our eyes. For Bitter Victory, like the sun, makes you close your eyes. Truth is blinding.” Godard’s exalted writings on the cinema, particularly his pieces on the films of Ray, The Wrong Man, and Man of the West, are among the real glories of film culture. But as a writer, Godard is uninterested in prolonging the shock of the work for the reader. He is consumed with proclaiming the passion that the film in question has ignited within him, and the possibilities of creating dialogue scenes of “fantastic brio” or dynamizing the screen with acid-green dresses and blue and pink carpets. For Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rohmer, criticism was a uniformly single-minded activity, and their rhetorical gestures were those of artists-in-waiting. Whenever I re-read Rivette’s famous condemnation of the camera movement in Kapo, for example, I do not have the impression of a carefully considered moral judgment but of a bold, slashing artistic gesture. Taken together, the white-hot writings of the Cahiers critics were not so much a peak in the history of criticism as a blazing, spontaneously generated collective artistic mission statement, as stirring as the Surrealist Manifesto or Whitman’s Democratic Vistas.
Left to Right: Jean-Luc Godard, Suzanne Schiffman, François Truffaut
When Andrew Sarris Americanized the politique, he made a crucial adjustment by turning a declaration of artistic liberty into both a system of evaluation (the auteur “theory”) and a crusade to change the way that cinema was thought of and discussed. An auteur was no longer an artist who spoke “in the first person,” as Rivette put it, and who had actually crafted a formidable body of work, but any director who had produced evidence of authorship, i.e., an ability to think in visual terms. The transcendent moment, isolated from the surrounding movie, became proof of the power of the auteur: scenes, passages, grace notes, epiphanies, directorial “use” of this or that actor or actress were precisely where the evidence lay. Placing so much stress on the part at the expense of the whole enhanced the idea of the studio-contracted director secretly injecting contraband strains of “personality” into the scripts to which he was assigned; it also promoted an extremely romantic idea of the director as an on-the-spot inventor, taking whatever material was handed to him and transforming it into gold. The very idea of the “whole” itself became suspect, implying an adherence to forms that were associated with literature and theater.
Somewhere along the line, the polemical devices of Sarris’s The American Cinema were internalized as method. All demurrals were filed under “hostile” and dismissed. To take Bazin’s objections seriously would be to admit that Hitchcock and Rossellini and Ray operated under constraints and conditions unknown to Matisse and Singier, and thus admit defeat. To pay attention to Farber’s commonsensical observations that “any image . . . can be read for any type of decisive, encapsulating judgment,” that a single “scene, actor or technician” is likely to inject “a flash-bomb vitality” across the grain of the film at any given moment, that dissolving “the studio influence from any discussion of [Walsh’s] films leaves him a fantasy figure,” would be to break the spell and stop the flow of revelation. To sympathize with Farber’s mid-Sixties lament for the demise in prestige of “the 40s critic, who was a prospector always repanning and sifting for buried American truth and subconscious life,” would be to submit to the tyranny of the relevant. To acknowledge narrative structure, the particulars of screen acting, the off-hand peculiarities of the image, or any aspect of production with more than a passing glance would be a distraction and a violation of the essential truth of the auteur. To be an auteurist was not to practice a critical discipline, but to believe. For that reason, the effect of auteurism on film criticism has been odd in the extreme.
I recently took a fresh look at the aforementioned scene from Bitter Victory, prompted by a re-reading of Robin Wood’s contribution to a long-forgotten early Seventies anthology called Favorite Movies. Wood’s essay, “The Seaweed-Gatherer,” is one of the finest in the book, and his point of view is soundly and refreshingly anti-essentialist: “The valid question is not ‘Is this theatrical?’ but ‘Does it work?’ and a cogent answer would involve some analysis of the whole film, and the relationship within it of style and meaning.” Wood evokes six examples from different films by way of illustration, one of which is the scene in question. This short paragraph strikes me as an emblematic auteurist gesture. “Richard Burton and Ruth Roman, former lovers, meet unexpectedly after an interval of some years under the suspicious eyes of the man she has married (Curt Jurgens) . . . The intensity of the Ray—it must be among the most electrifying dialogue sequences ever filmed—arises partly from the cutting. The situation is quite commonplace, the dialogue is unremarkable, the actors scarcely my favorites; though they offer notable demonstrations of the general truth that Ray can get fine performances from the most unexpected people, the fascination of the sequence does not lie merely in the acting. Ray has conceived the whole scene in terms of exchanged or intercepted looks; the significance, instead of being extracted from the text, is conferred upon it by the way the characters look at each other. The cutting stresses (but not crudely) the significance of the glances, Ray using editing rather as a poet uses accent to obtain the most precise inflections.”
As Wood shifts from a wide panoramic view to a close-up, he also shifts, imperceptibly and maybe even unconsciously, from a truly magnificent holism to a peculiarly auteurist form of essentialism. He begins his summary of the Burton-Roman-Jurgens exchange by simplifying the situation and eliding a few key pieces of information. Before the scene takes place, we learn that Burton and Jurgens are British soldiers stationed in Tripoli during World War II; that Jurgens is an insecure, buttoned- down army lifer who has been informed by his superiors that he is being considered for a dangerous commando mission that will leave the next morning; that Burton is a brasher and more defiant figure who is also being considered; that Jurgens’ boyishly elated reaction to the news that his wife is coming for a visit indicates a certain imbalance in their relationship. An aura of fatalism linked to inadequacy and resentment has already been established, by visual, verbal, and behavioral means, as we go into the scene.
In contrast to the brisk exchanges in the C.O.’s office, the dialogue in the scene in question is less unremarkable than it is unpalatable, and the action is unclear—indeed, the preceding scenes do a more efficient job of setting up the drama of bravery and cowardice to come than this now-celebrated exchange. The ostensible goals of the scene are to establish Jurgens’s suspicion that there’s something between Roman and Burton, and Roman’s understanding that one and perhaps both men might be sent out on the suicide mission, and these aims might have been handily realized by sticking to Hitchcock’s principle of innocuous dialogue in dynamic counterpoint to the emotional energies and conflicts that actually drive a scene. According to Bernard Eisenschitz in his Ray biography, the making of Bitter Victory was pure chaos. And the scene as written feels like a collection of drafts, stray notes, and ideas mashed together on the morning of the shoot. The dialogue is gummed up with people speaking when they most likely wouldn’t, revealing what they would be likely to hide, and failing to notice what they would be unlikely to miss. There are odd discrepancies. Jurgens is surprised all over again that Burton is being considered for the mission, and he takes pride in introducing Roman to Burton even though it has already been established that the two men are not friendly. The conversation itself follows a meandering non-logic in which the war, people’s short memories, careless talk, love, and survival are spot-welded into a rickety edifice atop an uncertain foundation. It’s not that Ray hasn’t worked from the text, but that the text is so convoluted (compared to the crispness of relatively similar scenes in The Lusty Men) that it all but dissolves on contact, thus placing the hypnotic shuffling of faces (42 variations of three setups in two minutes) at the center of the viewer’s attention. As a presumed consequence of the lack of clarity in the text, Burton and Roman float ethereally through the scene, and their emotional states are very murky: it’s unclear who is having what effect on whom. Jurgens is the only one who evolves emotionally, from elation to bonhomie to quiet astonishment to alarm to hurt. There are indeed many glances but very few of them are intercepted, and those only by Jurgens. The scene now seems less electrifying than tamped down, unified by what Farber once identified as Ray’s “keynote strangeness”—in this case, a pervasive sense of characters moving like sleepwalkers through the action. The strangeness is only deepened by the depressing tone of the production itself: a somber black-and-white CinemaScope image (not so far from Man of a Thousand Faces or The Joker Is Wild) reminiscent of funeral parlors and hospital chapels; three actors with a mild case of CinemaScope mumps; Hollywood decorum in the absence of Hollywood; and a desultory Forties-style nightclub ambience drained of any vitality by a deadened room tone and looped dialogue.
One must grant that Wood’s essay was written in the pre-home-video era and that his examples were not meant to be comprehensive. Nonetheless, it offers, in crystalline form, a perfect embodiment of the auteurist approach: the assumption of a cinematic essence beneath an outer shell of mere appearances (such as dialogue, décor, acting, sound), and—a stickier point—the subtle transformation of the actual scene into an ideal one made in the state of artistic freedom enjoyed by Matisse and Singier. I don’t want to imply that the vast range of criticism written under the auteurist banner is as heavily singularized as this little paragraph—Joseph McBride, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursoudon, Raymond Durgnat, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Sarris himself (Sarris the epigrammatically inclined critic, as opposed to Sarris the polemical campaigner) each created flexible and fruitful variations. Rather, the two complementary actions embodied in Wood’s approach—discarding surface detail in order to look to the inner core, and restoring the film and/or the filmmaker to a state of phantom wholeness—have become habitual over the years, and resulted in a dramatic gulf between how, why, and for whom films are actually made, and the way they are commonly written about by critics. I don’t believe that the gulf between artistic practice and criticism is as wide in any other art form. If I’ve singled out Wood, it certainly isn’t in order to prove him wrong or deflate him: we have all operated according to this model, to varying degrees. Durgnat once wrote in these pages that Howard Hawks as envisioned by Wood was both “a magnificent humanist hypothesis without which film culture would be infinitely poorer” and a confabulation. The same might be said of auteurism itself, which throughout the decades has developed a troublingly persistent tic of ignoring vast swaths of the movie experience in order to fixate on a supposedly essential reality. Meanwhile, amid all the discovering, elevating, furious moralizing, ranking, categorizing, proclaiming, denouncing, diagnosing, and theorizing, the work of actual description has hardly even begun.
André Bazin photo courtesy of Dudley Andrew/Florent Bazin; Manny Farber: Photo by Becky Cohen; Andrew Sarris: Photo by Jill Krementz, courtesy of Molly Haskell